Policy Briefs & Reports

Promises That Matter to Indian Democracy: A Study of Election Manifestos Since 1952

The Politics Initiative

Centre for Policy Research

September 1, 2022

Do manifestos of political parties play any meaningful role before, during and after elections? Are they powerful symbols of the ideas, vision and programmes offered by a party to citizens or are they merely symbolic? Since most voters don’t bother to read manifestos before casting their ballot, why not relegate manifestos to the dustbins of oblivion? Despite such questions raised every now and then by sceptics and cynics, manifestos remain significant to parties in articulating her future plan, course of action on key issues and ideological vision.

Globally, scholars have treated party manifestos as serious documents that clearly spell out the ideological vision and action plan of a party. The Comparative Manifesto Project (CMP) is a collaborative global exercise that converts promises made by rival parties in various countries of the world into statistically measurable and comparable parameters.
Unfortunately, Asian and African countries are largely missing from this exercise. Furthermore, the CMP methodology may not work for a diverse country like India, with a proliferation of political parties whose ideological visions are always not very clear. In this context, the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) devised a study protocol that maps out the Lok Sabha election manifestos of the Congress, the BJP and the CPI(M )since 1952. These three parties represent the ideological spectrum of Indian politics, and the study maps the evolution of issues that matter to Indian democracy.

The study involved a large team of independent coders and researchers using “word count”– the number of words devoted to an issue in the manifesto — to arrive at statistically measurable parameters. Seven major issues(or domains)were identified for the purpose: national security, political competence, political systems, social fabric, economic planning, welfare and development & infrastructure.

The results of this ambitious exercise are truly fascinating and offer a wealth of data as well as ideas to politicians, scholars, and journalists to dig deeper into specific issues confronting India that have attracted the attention of the major political parties. The study of manifestos from 1952 also offers a ringside view of how deeply and structurally the polity, economy and society have changed since India’s first elections. Manifestos may be forgotten, but they have left behind lasting
historical footprints.

Those interested can delve deeper into the wealth of data thrown up by this study. For the sake of brevity, here are just a handful of interesting highlights:

  • Economic Planning, Welfare, and Development & Infrastructure have received a lot of attention in all manifestos of all three political formations. Together, these three domains account for 55% of the total words written in the manifestos. The context, however, has changed over the decades. The first four decades emphasised socialist models of economic planning with the BJP being the lone advocate of the private sector. The economic liberalisation in 1991 changed the nature of issues in this segment across manifestos.
  • Despite the rhetoric proposed by all parties of being committed to rural India, the percentage of words devoted to rural development within the development & infrastructure domain has fallen precipitously from 42% in 1952 to 5.6% in 2019.
  • The BJP continues to put a lot of emphasis on physical infrastructure in this century. Similarly, it has been emphasizing national security, start-ups and self-reliance more significantly.
  • The Left continues to emphasise anti-imperialistic or “anti-American’ themes. It also gives a lot of space to labour rights and agriculture.
  • When it comes to foreign policy and national security, internationalism, external influence and foreign special relations dominated the discourse for the first four decades. The Congress’s emphasis was on internationalism while the CPI(M) focused on foreign special relations; in support of China/Soviet Union and opposed to the US. The BJP manifestos paid much more attention to the military during this period. Since the 1980s,with terrorism becoming more common, the BJP has dramatically increased its focus on internal security and terrorism. The INC and CPI(M) have not been as consistent in their focus on these two issues.
  • Over the decades, the focus of parties shifted, with the changing national and international conditions. As mentioned earlier, terrorism never found a place in manifestos until the 1980s, but it has become an important issue since then. Similarly, while economic planning and state intervention received a lot of attention in the first four decades, any issue related to free markets or economic liberalisation received barely any attention. That has changed dramatically since 1991.
  • Changing realities have also led to a new discourse. Environment and sustainability have become important issues since the 1980s. The first few decades did not see much attention paid to “urban” issues as India was overwhelmingly rural. But with increased urbanisation leading to a big chunk of voters living in urban clusters, urban issues now receive a lot more attention.